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Updated: February 22, 2012 16:18 IST

The street art spy

Harshini Vakkalanka
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Lene says every time an artist crosses the line, he raises sensitive questions about society. Photo: Special Arrangement
Lene says every time an artist crosses the line, he raises sensitive questions about society. Photo: Special Arrangement

Lene ter Haar, curator of the ongoing show on graffiti, says she is interested in the sub-cultures of art

Lene ter Haar, curator of the ongoing exhibition of avant-garde German graffiti “Achtung: Ashphaltkultur”, became a curator quite inadvertently by starting an art space in a Maastricht squat in 2000 while studying.

“I was organizing exhibitions there for a few years when a museum director asked me to join as a curator in 2006,” says Lene. She has been curating for over 10 years now.

Lene has been a contemporary art curator at Schunck Glaspaleis, Heerlen, and Museum Het Domein, Sittard, in the Netherlands. She is also part of the advisory commission of the Mondriaan Foundation and the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture.

“I'm interested in the subcultures of art — self-organized movements that take the bottom-up approach, whether art from the outside is brought into a gallery space, like graffiti, or mural art. In such a system, artists legitimize themselves. I call it unsolicited art, which isn't restricted to muralism, but also includes performance art and photography that refers to public spaces,” she explains.

According to Lene, a growing number of artists are moving to the public space to develop pieces of art. “Artists like to work in public space because the surroundings give them a strong context. Such works claim visibility in the city, at the same time the artist can remain anonymous. This public space is utilized to drop ideas, tell stories or even raise political issues. It is instrumental in raising public discussions.”

Public art always raises questions about violation of public property, but Lene feels that this “violation” in fact raises the relevant questions.

“Unsolicited art could be just a harmless public gesture, but it could also turn into vandalism. I'm simply an observer, and I think every time the artist crosses the line, he raises sensitive questions about the society. He questions the idea of private property, whether it is right to privatize public space, about how freely one can move around the city. If public space becomes private, then the way one moves in the city changes,” argues Lene.

“If the government puts up images, these images communicate and carry a certain power. Artists claim visibility by putting up images, which are both visually attractive and challenging in their ideas. It is important that all players can claim their images. It is always a power struggle, but it can also be productive.”

She cites the example of an artist who painted “No visa required” on an advertisement by a well-known multinational asking the people of Kosovo to visit Britain.

“Shortly after he painted over the image, people queued up in front of the passport office. It was an artistic intervention that raised a huge public discourse about people's lives in Kosovo and how MNCs behave in such a politically delicate context. Many layers of society were brought into the discourse with that one art work. The momentum of 11 hours of artwork is so strong that we are still talking about it.”

On the other hand, picking out these artworks and putting them in a gallery space is also quite challenging. “Many times we use documentation since the idea of there being one art piece is not so important. These exhibitions are more concept-based. We have to learn to balance the inside and the outside. Here in‘Achtung: Asphaltkultur', the match is well-made, the exhibition structure actually creates an urban situation.”

It is also important to keep the anonymity of the artists intact, if they ask for it. “It's my passion and it keeps me busy. My eyes and ears are open 24x7.It's a mixture of hard work and coincidence. I use all the media to look for artwork.

“Sometimes I ask artists if they know someone interesting because in closed sub-cultures, artists know each other very well. If you know one entrance, you quickly get to know everyone else.”

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